Byline: JONATHAN MIRSKY
THE young Chinese woman at my local pool this week summed it all up for me.
We had greeted each other politely as usual, in Chinese, when she asked me if I was going to Beijing for the Olympics. I said I would like to but have been banned from China since I was ejected in 2001. I'm a journalist, I explained.
Quick as a flash, she said, "Then you were telling lies, lies, lies. Like the BBC, you hate 'Wo Zhongguo', my China." I said I didn't hate China, but I disliked countries that locked people up for their speech and ideas.
"All those people are criminals," she said. "Do you think your own country is perfect?"
I replied that actually I was American.
She pounced: "So you admit you come from a criminal country."
Tomorrow, as the Olympics open, much can be understood from her words about Chinese official attitudes. The foreign press lies. Those who disagree with the regime are criminals. And unspoken is the resentment that justifies almost everything: Western imperialism humiliated China in the 19th century, carved it up "like a melon". For decades the Chinese were made to feel backward and weak. Now, as it "lives the dream" of the Olympics, China shows that it "has stood up", as Mao proclaimed in 1949.
Beijing certainly looks different now.
Fantastic glass architecture has replaced the winding alleys and little shops that made China's capital unique in the world. Some of those thousands of residents bulldozed out of the way, whose traditional untrendy clothes and shabby houses didn't fit what the Party wants people to see, took the opportunity this week to protest loudly near Tiananmen Square.
Out-of-uniform policewomen, who normally would have beaten them up, coaxed them gently away from the BBC cameras. Nor did the police put their hands over the lenses, the way they usually do. That is forbidden for the next three weeks. What is not forbidden is the locking up of men such as Hu Jia, who published the open letter The Real China and the Olympics and is now imprisoned for three and a half years. Or the peasant Yang Chunlin, who organised a petition claiming that what peasants want is human rights, not the Olympics. He got five years and a beating.
The blind advocate of women's rights, Chen Guangchen, will spend more than four years behind bars for saying that women who protest at the one-child policy are routinely subjected to savage forced abortions. Only in the last few days, an exiled dissident group has published on its website a list of seven prison camps near Beijing that may well house some of China's thousands of political prisoners.
Of course, not much happened to the young Britons who flew a Tibet-protest banner in Tiananmen on Tuesday.
Deported, they arrived back in Britain today. During my years of reporting from China, whenever I was interrogated by the police about something I had written or somewhere I had gone, I could see from their quivering fists how they longed to use muscle on me, and thought: "Thank God I'm not a Chinese." So should foreign leaders have boycotted today's opening ceremony? No. That reasonable man, the Dalai Lama, has said that they must go and publicly raise the matter of Chinese human rights. …